A few weeks ago I was "shopping" at Nieman-Marcus. Or, more accurately, I was "prowling." I don't usually go to the upper floors, because I don't usually buy couture, so I was feeling a bit like a fraud among the Calvin Kleins. Hence the prowling--creeping from one side to the other, fingering fabrics and glancing at price tags.
Stopping in front of some nice black DKNY blazers, I felt a little less exposed. And, strangely, I began to notice that I was surrounded by the smell of my Grandma's perfume. I looked around me, but there was no one on the other side of the rack or in the dressing room. Just me and the same smell that wafts out of the doors of her cabinet, which now stands in our living room.
I kept looking at the blazers and trying to decide if I would ever even use such a thing. And suddenly I heard my Grandmother's voice, clear and commanding as a bell: "Go on, honey. Try it on for Grandma."
And so I did, thinking as I did so about the days when "going to Grandma's" meant visiting her on the job, in a department store in downtown Columbus.
Grandma ruled the roost in Better Sportswear, whatever that means. Whenever my mother (and later, whenever I) stopped in, she always had something set aside for us, a solid middlebrow label like Jones New York or Chaus or Pendleton. Grandma appointed herself our own personal shopper--and, even better, she had a discount.
When I was little, I thought her life was very glamorous. She wore put-together suits and separates and she had colorful costume jewelery, glittering beaded necklaces and brooches and pins. (I loved the necklace of tiny pink beads, but I never found it.) To add to the glamour, she took great vacations, traveling to Europe and Alaska, sending letters via air mail and bringing back presents for everyone. I've been wearing the carved turquoise ring she brought back from Alaska every day since 1981.
She worked at the store for more than 20 years, so this ritual continued until I went away to college. It wasn't always easy--those days after Christmas and Thanksgiving couldn't have been fun. She didn't have a car, so there was always a bus ride there and back again to deal with. And she was always accidentally slamming her fingers in the cash register, turning her fingernails black and blue.
Alas, the blazer wasn't going to do. It had this sort of floppy tail at the back. And so I hung it back up, and the smell of perfume seemed to dissipate, and I kept moving.
Grandma died in 1995. My mom and I miss her. In the intervening years, on our post-Thanksgiving shopping trips, we always made a detour to visit the Better Sportswear department, if only to remind ourselves what it was like when she was there.
So do I think she's still following me around, vicariously shopping at my side? The journalist in me, who marshals facts and evidence, says Of course not. Ridiculous. But the dreamer--and the shopper--in me shrugs and says Who knows? Eternity is a long time not to go shopping.
The irony is, of course, those days in Better Sportswear trained me to be a shopper extraordinaire. I don't need anyone, living or dead, to tell me to check for linings and buttonholes and all those pointers of quality. To tell me a blazer with a floppy fishtail is going to look dated in six months, or possibly tomorrow. Grandma trained me well. If there's anything I need advice from the afterlife on, it isn't spotting a bargain.
It would be much more practical to get some advice about, say, the car. If my tires are six years old but I only drive once a week, do I need to replace them? There's an eternal worry right there.
But Grandma never had a car.
So if I run into her again, it will probably be in a department store somewhere, where for me, commerce will always mingle with memory.